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Mister Rogers, Doctor Seuss, & Tests

Published ChicagoNow, October 25, 2013

A friend of mine who trains Chicago public elementary school teachers how to teach reading was lamenting how stressful her job had become. While she was excited about some new techniques that enabled teachers to differentiate for their students, I asked her how a teacher with 30+ young students could manage having all of them doing individualized learning programs. She admitted that it would be challenging, but that trying to figure out how to implement the newest approaches to teaching was the best part of her job. When I asked her was made her work so stressful, she said it was making sense of all of the standardized testing scores and dealing with children and schools falling further behind due to the raising of the bar on standards every year.

No matter how she crunched the numbers from all of these standardized tests, they didn’t make sense. One year a child exceeded standards and the next year that same child tested below standards, even though all of his scores improved. On one test, a school was doing well but on another it was labeled a failure. She spent more time testing children and manipulating numbers than she did teaching these new and exciting techniques for reading instruction.

Another friend, who recently retired from her job as a reading specialist in a suburban public school, agreed that the standardized testing had reached the point where it took up more of her time than actually teaching reading and working with children. This ultimately drove this excellent master educator to take early retirement.

I am truly puzzled by this phenomenon and wonder why we have come to this place in our approach to education. I think good teaching is an art, not a mathematical formula. Good teaching cannot be measured in a meaningful way using the standardized test scores of the children taught in a given class and year. While it is important to have standards of what children should know at the end of each grade, these standards should guide teaching rather than determine exactly what every child should be doing (and no more). Lost in all of this is an appreciation for creativity and individual differences. Instead, the goal is for every child to pass the test and what is taught is geared toward that goal. I would have hated being a teacher under these expectations.

Two of my heroes are Fred Rogers and Dr. Seuss (Note to Ted Cruz: The message of Green Eggs and Ham, as every parent of a picky toddler knows, is "try it and you may [like it] I say."). Today’s educational experts who place so much value on standardized testing and teaching to those tests might want to ponder some of the things these brilliant men said.

Fred Rogers:

  • “I'm proud of you for the times you came in second, or third, or fourth, but what you did was the best you have ever done”

  • “A young apprentice applied to a master carpenter for a job. The older man asked him, ‘Do you know your trade?’ ‘Yes, sir!’ the young man replied proudly. ‘Have you ever made a mistake?’ the older man inquired. ‘No, sir!’ the young man answered, feeling certain he would get the job. ‘Then there's no way I'm going to hire you,’ said the master carpenter, ‘because when you make one, you won't know how to fix it.’”

  • “It’s important to know when to stop, reflect, and receive. In our competitive world, that might be called a waste of time.”

Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel):

  • “I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.”

  • “Think and wonder, wonder and think.”

  • “There's no limit to how much you'll know, depending how far beyond zebra you go.”

  • “Children's reading & children's thinking are the rock-bottom base upon which this country will rise. Or not rise."

  • “You were not born to just fit in, you were born to stand out!”

Good teaching is partly intuitive and cannot be constrained by time limits or reduced to learning facts. Teachers need to be able to use those “teachable moments” and diverge from their lesson plans when the children’s interests and enthusiasm carry them in a different direction. They need to nurture children’s creative thinking, wide-ranging interests, and unique styles of learning.

These days, facts are literally at our fingertips. Knowing what questions we should plug into our search engines and learning how to use the facts we uncover to take us in new directions cannot be measured by tests. As Dr. Seuss wisely said, “It is better to know how to learn than to know.”


by Laurie Levy
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